Auslander, Shalom

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Auslander, Shalom

PERSONAL:

Married; children: one.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Woodstock, NY. Agent—Jody Hotchkiss, Hotchkiss and Associates, Inc., 611 Broadway, Ste. 741, New York, NY 10012. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer and advertising executive. Former advertising copy writer.

WRITINGS:

(With Jerry Beck) I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat: Fifty Years of Sylvester and Tweety, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1991.

Beware of God (short stories), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to This American Life, for National Public Radio.

SIDELIGHTS:

Shalom Auslander drew on his childhood in an Orthodox Jewish family and his subsequent rejection of that culture for his first book of short stories, Beware of God. "It wasn't religion that made me leave," he explained to Sara Ivry in an interview for the Next Book Web site, "and it wasn't just family. It was a combination of being in something of a stereotypical but also rather dysfunctional family, combined with a religion, or a form of a religion, that allowed for nothing."

The fourteen stories in Beware of God are surrealist satires of devout Jewish belief that "investigate the meaning of faith and spirituality while making the reader laugh out loud," Megan Walton stated in a review for the Web site Bookslut. In "God Is a Big Happy Chicken," the late Yankel Morgenstern enters heaven and finds that, as the title suggests, God is a thirty-foot-tall, perfectly content chicken. "The Metamorphosis" features a young yeshiva student who wakes up to find himself inhabiting a large, hairy, and definitely gentile body. A modern man is commanded to build an ark in "Prophet's Dilemma," and to his surprise, he finds the project much easier than it seems. Home Depot sells everything he needs, and "there was absolutely nothing you could tell Home Depot Man you were building that would surprise him, that would get any reaction from him at all, for that matter, aside from the usual skepticism about your choice of building materials."

Other stories focus on what would happen if members of the animal kingdom found religion. For the title character of "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp," the realization that he feels shame totally shatters him. In "Waiting for Joe," two pious hamsters believe that their owner will return and take care of them if they worship him the right way, but they are unable to agree on what the right way is. This theme of religious strife reappears in "It Ain't Easy Bein' Supremey," about two golems who, instead of making their creator's life easier as he had intended, fight constantly about the true meaning of his commands to them. Small Spiral Notebook Web site contributor Katie Weekley declared "It Ain't Easy Bein' Supremey" to be "one of the funniest stories in the collection."

One of the most remarked-upon tales in Beware of God is "Holocaust Tips for Kids," written from the perspective of a modern-day child who is frightened that the Nazis will return but who resolutely plans how to escape and survive if they do. A Kirkus Reviews contributor described this piece as "a marvelously twisted catalogue of grisly historical facts mixed with juvenile naivete and fear," and Onion A.V. Club reviewer Tasha Robin- son stated that "Beware of God hits its high mark with ‘Holocaust Tips for Kids.’" Robinson continued: "Auslander is a clever, sharp writer…. In his better stories, he clearly illustrates how people let beliefs get in the way of their understanding, and at his absolute best, he shows how much emotional harm that lack of understanding can cause."

Although many of Auslander's tales are likely to be disquieting to devout believers, Auslander insists that he is not as anti-God as the title of his book might indicate. "I do [believe in God]," he told Ivry, "because I don't want not to…. I have a hard time believing the opposite, believing that me and my wife finding each other and our love and our child are accidents. It would be hard to live thinking that things are that random."

Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir explains how Auslander's religious upbringing irreparably traumatized him. He was taught strict belief in a God who was vengeful and capricious. "When we obeyed what the man had commanded, he liked us," Auslander observes. "He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn't like us. But when we didn't obey what he had commanded, he didn't like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us." Nor did the family provide any safe haven: Auslander's father was an angry alcoholic who flew into violent rages; his mother was an unhappy and ineffectual woman resentful of her rabbi brothers' status and success. Increasingly rebellious as a young teen, Auslander acted out by shoplifting clothes and junk food, which only made him more fearful of God's inevitable punishment. Eventually caught, he was sentenced to community service, which he completed at a yeshiva in Israel. Returning to New York, he briefly worked as a shomer, a night watch person in a funeral home. After marrying a Jewish woman from London, England, Auslander took a job in an advertising agency and began writing articles for magazines, an experience through which he discovered his taste for catharsis through humor.

The imminent birth of his first child, a son, became the impetus for Auslander to structure his negative memories into a coherent narrative. Foreskin's Lament is ostensibly the story of the boy's gestation, birth, and first year, centering on the serious dilemma that Auslander and his wife face: whether to allow a ritual circumcision, or have a doctor do the procedure in the hospital. Risking God's anger, they choose the latter option. In the background, however, hover the story of Auslander's own childhood and his enduring anger and frustration at a religious tradition that, he feels, left him forever damaged. He is still religious, he writes, "painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each more hateful and bloody than the next, as I'm doing my best to lose Him. I'm failing miserably."

The memoir struck many reviewers with its sharp wit and impeccable comic timing. Auslander "brilliantly manages to make his grave subject hilarious without being glib, and serious without being grim," wrote Bookslut Web site interviewer Drew Nellins. Benjamin Anastas, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the memoir a "funny, fierce and subversively heartfelt book," while San Francisco Chronicle contributor Kevin Smokler described it as a "sneering, chaotic laugh riot" and a "comedic victory lap, run amid the crowd noise of painful childhood memories."

Some readers, however, were put off by Auslander's cynical perspective. Assuming the persona of God, a critic for the Village Voice chided Auslander for childishness, narrow scope, and lack of originality. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also found Auslander relatively unsympathetic. Yet many critics found both hilarity and depth in Foreskin's Lament. "Like most satirists," commented David Kaufmann in Forward, Auslander "is at heart a moralist." Willamette Week (Willamette, Oregon) reviewer Kelly Clarke identified a universal theme in the book, observing that Auslander "nails that nagging feeling that life, as we know it, cannot possibly come without dire tradeoffs. He understands that a big part of living is the excruciating task of waiting for it all to go wrong—with or without God's help." Ian Sansom, in a review for the Guardian, describes the memoir as a "blasphemous, gratuitous, often silly, petulant, trivial and pathetic little book, which blames everyone and everything for its own inadequacies and idiocies." Sansom added playfully that he wished he had written the book himself, because "Foreskin's Lament is not a diatribe merely against family, or tribe, or place, or people: it's a diatribe against God. And as most of the prophets … can clearly testify, there is nothing more stirring, more shocking, and finally more uplifting than a good complaint against God. Who doesn't love complaint? What else is literature?"

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Auslander, Shalom, Beware of God, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

Auslander, Shalom, Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2007.

PERIODICALS

Biography, January 1, 2008, review of Foreskin's Lament, p. 161.

Booklist, March 1, 2005, Debi Lewis, review of Beware of God, p. 1140.

Bookmarks, January-February, 2008, "Foreskin's Lament, Fighting with God," p. 58.

Dallas Morning News, December 22, 2007, Michael Merschel, "Author Auslander Tests God's Wrath in Foreskin's Lament."

Entertainment Weekly, September 21, 2007, Gregory Kirschling, review of Foreskin's Lament, p. 87; October 5, 2007, Jennifer Reese, "Shtick Figure," review of Foreskin's Lament, p. 73.

Forward, September 12, 2007, David Kaufmann, "Heretic with Fries," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), November 20, 2007, Michael Posner, "A Man Bedevilled by God," review of Foreskin's Lament, p. R4; November 24, 2007, A.J. Levin, "If You Prick Him …," review of Foreskin's Lament p. D8.

Guardian (London, England), March 1, 2008, Ian Sansom, "God Is So God," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Houston Chronicle, October 26, 2007, Ronnie Crocker, "Complaint to a Wrathful God: Orthodox Jew, Religious but not Observant, Vents about his Maker," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Independent (London, England), February 24, 2008, William Sutcliffe, review of Foreskin's Lament.

Jerusalem Post, October 11, 2007), Ben Harris, "Beyond Belief," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Jewish Journal, October 18, 2007, Sandee Brawarsky, "An Orthodox ‘Cast-Off’ Holds God Accountable," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2005, review of Beware of God, p. 63; August 1, 2007, review of Foreskin's Lament.

Library Journal, January, 1992, Janice Zlendich, review of I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat: Fifty Years of Sylvester and Tweety, p. 121; August 1, 2007, Nancy E. Adams, review of Foreskin's Lament, p. 92.

London Telegraph, February 11, 2008, Gerald Jacobs, "A Jew Asks God Some Difficult Questions," review of Foreskin's Lament.

London Times, February 10, 2008, Naomi Alderman, "Foreskin's Lament: A Theological Appraisal."

National Post (Ontario, Canada), November 24, 2007, Joel Yanofsky, review of Foreskin's Lament, p. 14.

New York Magazine, August 24, 2007, Borish Kachka, "Please, God, Don't Be Too Pissed at Me," interview with Auslander about Foreskin's Lament.

New York Observer, October 30, 2007, Alexandra Jacobs, "To Snip or Not to Snip—That's Shalom's Question," review of Foreskin's Lament.

New York Sun, October 5, 2007, Andy Selsberg, "Holier than Thou," review of Foreskin's Lament.

New York Times, October 1, 2007, Charles McGrath, "Man and God (and God's Sick Punch Lines)," review of Foreskin's Lament.

New York Times Book Review, October 21, 2007, Benjamin Anastas, "Painfully Religious," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Observer (London, England), January 22, 2006, Hephzibah Anderson, "When Pork Becomes a Weapon in the Sex Wars," review of Beware of God; February 24, 2008, Hilary Spurling, "Up to Your Neck in Manure: According to Shalom Auslander, the Jewish Life Is a Long Round of God-Given Oppression," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Publishers Weekly, February 28, 2005, review of Beware of God, p. 42; May 28, 2007, review of Foreskin's Lament, p. 45; October 3, 2007, Bethanne Patrick, "Recommended Reading: Foreskin's Lament."

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), October 5, 2007, Rodney Price, "Exorcising Demons of Faith and Family," review of Foreskin's Lament.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 9, 2007, Dale Singer, "Auslander's Complaint Is Funny, Fuming, Familiar," review of Foreskin's Lament, p. F14.

St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), November 4, 2007, Melanie Hubbard, "‘Foreskin's Lament’ Explores a Fundamental Obsession."

San Francisco Chronicle, October 14, 2007, Kevin Smokler, review of Foreskin's Lament.

Tikkun, May-June, 2005, review of Beware of God, p. 81.

Times Literary Supplement, January 20, 2006, Jonathan Ellis, "Non-Kosher Nostrums," review of Beware of God, p. 21.

Toronto Star, October 20, 2007, Susan Walker, "Talking Back to the God He Grew up With."

Village Voice, September 25, 2007, "Ignorance Is Bris," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Washington Post Book World, October 30, 2007, Donna Rifkind, "Like Father, Like Son," review of Foreskin's Lament.

Willamette Week (Willamette, OR), October 3, 2007, Kelly Clarke, review of Foreskin's Lament.

ONLINE

Bookslut,http://www.bookslut.com/ (April, 2005), Megan Walton, review of Beware of God; (June 23, 2008), Drew Nellins, interview with Auslander.

Bostonist Web log,http://bostonist.com/ (June 23, 2008), Caroline Roberts, interview with Auslander.

Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (June 23, 2008), Jeremy Hatch, review of Foreskin's Lament.

Gawker,http://gawker.com/ (September 26, 2007), "Fame Is Worse than Crack," review of Foreskin's Lament; (June 23, 2008), Emily Gould, "Foreskin's Lament: Is Religious Extremism Hilarious?"

JBooks.com,http://www.jbooks.com (June 23, 2008), Naomi Seidman, review of Foreskin's Lament.

Jewish.com,http://jewish.com/ (April 5, 2005), Lawrence Goodman, review of Beware of God.

Nextbook.org,http://www.nextbook.org/ (March 24, 2005), Sara Ivry, "Dogs and Monsters," interview with the author.

Onion A.V. Club Web site,http://www.theonionavclub.com/ (March 30, 2005), Tasha Robinson, review of Beware of God.

Red Blue America Web log,http://redblueamerica.com/ (June 23, 2008), review of Foreskin's Lament.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Online,http://www.sfbg.com/ (June 23, 2008), Scott Steinberg, review of Foreskin's Lament.

Shalom Auslander Home Page,http://www.shalomauslander.com (June 23, 2008).

Small Spiral Notebook,http://www.smallspiralnotebook.com/ (June 24, 2005), Katie Weekley, review of Beware of God.